INDIANAPOLIS — After covering two-thirds of the court with three dribbles, Derrick Rose cradled the basketball and cut between two Pacers to draw a foul as he made a layup that looked eerily familiar to every NBA Eastern Conference coach.
One possession later in the second quarter of the Bulls' 82-76 exhibition victory Saturday night over the Pacers, Rose exploded like a guy bursting with 525 days' worth of anticipation to finish a one-man fast break with another vintage basket in a blur.
Many people came to Indianapolis from all over just to see if Rose and his new left knee might crash. Thousands gather once a year here a few miles away at the old Brickyard with the same idea. Instead, this was the game Rose proved, more than anything, he still knows how to drive fast.
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"You see how he makes the game easier for everybody and the speed at which he plays,'' Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said.
This was what scalpers milling around Meridian Street three hours before tipoff at Bankers Life Fieldhouse paid to see. This was what a teenager from Nashville, Tenn., in a No. 1 jersey and the dude from Oak Park with his face painted red and black drove hours to watch. This was what gave an exhibition game a playoff feel in a building loaded with curiosity and Rose fans.
Finally, this was an answer to the question haunting the Bulls for 18 months. Yes, Rose will rise again.
"I felt great, normal,'' Rose said after scoring 13 points in 20-plus minutes. "It's coming to me, but it's coming slow.''
Since Rose tore the ACL in his left knee April 28, 2012, the basketball world wondered whether the same player would return. Those doubts lingered no matter how good Rose looked shooting against ghost defenders in pregame sessions or practice. Not until a second-quarter flurry when Rose did what so few NBA point guards can do could anybody outside the Bulls inner circle truly relax.
A third-quarter, two-handed dunk went further in easing concerns for anybody who missed the first half. Rose always said dunking would be how you could tell he was back. I suppose we cannot say Rose is fully himself until he is dunking in games like he does in adidas commercials, but this dunk offered more substance than style.
It depicted a boldness that said same ol' D-Rose, the message Rose sent that required action to back up his words. Proof came when Rose drove right at 7-foot-2 Roy Hibbert, landed hard and hit two free throws after quickly getting up.
"I knew that I was going to play the same way,'' Rose said.
Maybe Rose didn't need that sequence for reassurance but everybody else not on the Bulls' payroll did.
For the first half of the first quarter, it was hard to tell a former MVP was on the court. The offense functioned more like Marquis Teague was running it than Rose. On Rose's first basket 3 minutes, 12 seconds into the game, he put back a rebound off his own wild layup attempt. Then Rose beat George Hill off the dribble but his patented teardrop floater looked like it had been out of circulation for 18 months and bounced off the back of the rim. Another drive resulted in a David West block. The biggest thing Rose did to draw applause was touch the ball on the first possession. The crowd responded with cheers that reflected the excitement in the building over the return of The Franchise.
Those cheers turned to gasps when Rose tried taking a charge from 6-5, 230-pound Lance Stephenson. A bigger scare came when Rose awkwardly lost his balance driving past Pacers point guard C.J. Watson in one of those moments that confirmed Rose's body had ways to go before it catches up with his head.
"I just have to get my feet under me,'' Rose said.
After all, he has a foundation to support. After hearing Thibodeau outline his expectations for Rose before the game, you stopped worrying about Rose's knee and started wondering again if his back could carry the heavy burden.
"Run the team, organize us, lead us, guide us, unite us,'' Thibodeau said.
That's all. That sounds more like a job description of a politician than a recovering point guard. It will be fascinating to see if the narrative slowly shifts from the public expecting too much of Rose — last year's story — to Thibodeau doing the same with his surgically repaired leader. The process still requires patience.
But after a long-awaited, promising debut, it is easy to see how Rose could unify a city with one common belief by the Bulls' Oct. 29 opener: The rust is history.